Student News

Supporting Women in Data Science

How can women and underrepresented minorities in the technology industry better support each other? Bennington College is starting a chapter of Women in Data Science (WiDS), a student-led initiative aimed to support college students through the creation of dialogues, opportunities, and shared resources.

By Halley Le '25

Niki Karanikola ’23 is a Computer Science student with a passion for data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. In her final year at Bennington, Karanikola is working with faculty member Meltem Ballan to initiate a Bennington chapter of Stanford University’s Women in Data Science organization and create a support network for aspiring data scientists, as well as underrepresented individuals in the technology industry. 

“In summer 2022, I was a part of a training program called Break Through Tech AI at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was my first and most thorough introduction to machine learning. The program organized professional development sessions and invited many professionals in the field to converse about different topics, and the discussion about ethics piqued my interest,” recalled Karanikola.

Inspired by the conversations she had over the summer, Karanikola reached out to Ballan for support.

“I wanted to see how we can bring the discussion on ethics, data, AI, and machine learning, and similar topics here in Bennington, and that’s how Meltem introduced me to Women in Data Science, or WiDS,” said Karanikola. “WiDS is a long-established organization based in Stanford whose goal is to create a support network for women in data science. WiDS engages younger generations in data science, supports female data scientists through the creation of conferences, datathon, and shared resources, and opens dialogue on topics ranging from the latest technology breakthroughs to diversity and inclusion in the field.”

As someone who once struggled when starting her studies in computer science, Karanikola deeply connected with WiDS’ mission and was determined to bring the initiative onto Bennington’s campus. 

“I initially came to Bennington planning to study sculpture and philosophy, so when I took my first computer science class, I struggled a lot,” said Karanikola. “Being in the same classes with people who have had programming experience or have been studying computer science for a long time can be overwhelming. That’s why I am so determined to create a fun and welcoming environment for people who want to try out computer science.”

Great plans ahead

Karanikola and another Computer Science classmate, Mohammad Tanvir Anjum ’25, applied to become Bennington’s campus ambassadors for the nationwide WiDS Conference. In their roles, they will work closely with the WiDS organization, Bennington faculty, and the campus community to create a series of events to engage more students in data science at Bennington.

“We plan to kickstart the initiative with a series of fireside chats this term. In these chats we will connect with female professionals in the field and hear their perspective on different topics ranging from diversity and inclusion to latest development in the field of artificial intelligence,” said Karanikola. 

The first chat, held on November 16, 2022, with Ballan, Bennington’s very own female data scientist, discussed diversity and inclusion in the field of data science and the technology industry. The second conversation, to be held on November 29, will introduce guest speaker Amy Daily, a professional in the field of AI research, and discuss the topic of effective inclusion in data science and blockchain.

Aside from connecting with the campus community through fireside chats, Karanikola and Anjum are also incubating several events for the spring term.

“When school starts again in February, we plan to organize our own datathon,” shared Karanikola about her vision. “We have surveyed the campus community and, based on students’ interest, picked climate change mitigation as the theme [of the datathon].”

“Climate models that scientists had built prior to serious global warming are not working to serve our current needs; hence, there is a lot of mobilization right now to try and build better models,” explained Karanikola. “I understand the relationship between climate change and data science sound very distant to non-STEM students; however, I believe that it is a good introduction, and we will design our challenge to welcome people from all levels.”

In fact, climate change mitigation is the perfect topic for Bennington students—a robust community of environmentalists, public activists, and socially responsible individuals.

“My hope is to draw in people outside of [computer science/data science] to try out something out of their comfort zone. Data science is such an interdisciplinary field that you can find connections from data science to everything: from social science, to public action, to art,” said Karanikola. “I hope people will have fun while learning about this new discipline and also connect with each other!”

Many data science lovers and community engagement enthusiasts are contributing to the organization of WiDS at Bennington. While Karanikola and Anjum bridge Bennington’s WiDS communication with Stanford’s WiDS and oversee event planning, other students will help with audio and video editing, media outreach, and logistics of the events. 

Karanikola is enthusiastic to recognize the fun yet challenging working process.

“Due to COVID-19, I had to spend four terms studying off campus,” said Karanikola. “I haven’t been the most active person in terms of student engagement. So it has been fun to be on the other side of trying to bring people together. I appreciate the help I get from everyone, and I have truly enjoyed meeting and working with new people whom I would never have met otherwise.”

Taking initiative has never been an easy feat, but Karanikola is determined and dedicated to WiDS’ goals.

“My short-term goal includes engaging students in something out of their comfort zone. I want to introduce female data scientists as role models, people whom our peers can look up to and be inspired by their success,” said Karanikola. “Finally, computer science and technology is a competitive field, and I hope to spearhead a community where everyone can support each other. That’s something I hope to achieve in the long run.”

Image of woman in front of brick wall
Niki Karanikola ’23
Image of Niki Karanikola and Meltem Ballan
Niki Karanikola and Meltem Ballan at the first Fireside Chat
Image of Niki Karanikola and Meltem Ballan
Niki Karanikola and Meltem Ballan at the first Fireside Chat

“Diversity and Inclusion in Data Science”: A first milestone

At 1:00 pm on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, Karanikola sat down with Meltem Ballan for an insightful conversation, where Ballan shared her experiences as a female, Turkish, neurodiverse data scientist working in the US. 

Ballan recounted how her passion for data science was ignited, as well as the biases she faced after working for 20 years in the industry. She also shared her perspectives on mentorship and imposter syndrome and reflected on the efforts to facilitate diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  

“Data science is one of the most inclusive disciplines, because data science requires a multitude of skills: from math to communication to acting. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that you are connected with this technology,” said Ballan. “Don’t feel like you don’t understand enough or aren’t tech-savvy enough. You are a part of this emerging technology era, and as long as you do your research, you can bring a lot to the table.”

Conversation with Meltem Ballan marked WiDS’ very first effort to open dialogue about data science and create a support network for underrepresented groups in the industry. The Women in Data Science initiative promises more insightful conversations and events in the months to come.

 Catch Women in Data Science and guest speaker Amy Daali in a conversation on the Effective Inclusion in Data Science and Blockchain on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. This Fireside Chat is scheduled at 1:00pm in Common 319.